For quite some time scientists have dealt with the controversy of the ethics of genetically modified (GM) food. There are many objections to the use of “genetic technology in agriculture” (753) because there are many potential harms. In Ethics and Genetically Modified Foods, Gary Comstock analyzes how the “precautionary approach” (756) affects society’s attitude towards GM foods. He also explains the reasons why his own negative attitude has changed towards GM foods because of this “precautionary approach”
The potential harms to “humans… ecosystems… and animals” leaves room for many objections (753). A greatly influential reason that GM foods are objected is because of religious views. Many people consider scientists, that are using genetic technology to manipulate nature, are attempting to play God’s role, and that its practices are unnatural. This cannot be an entirely sufficient reason because there are too many different views of God that do not coincide. Comstock does not entirely agree with GM foods, but argues that if we must use religion as a significant reason in objecting GM foods, there is nothing wrong with expanding on our “creative impulses” because it is part of our “inquisitive nature”, especially when it comes to science (754). He believes that “… humans are made in the divine image. God desires that we exercise the spark of divinity within us” (754).
Comstock argues that unnatural and religious objections “are unsound [because] they lead to counterintuitive results” (755), and are “ambiguous and contentious” (754).Because of “the weakness of the[se, and other], intrinsic objections”, Comstock has changed his views against GM foods. People almost always take the precautionary approach when it comes to food they eat because it concerns their health. When there is negative information thrown at us about a certain food we are automatically opposed to it, even though there may be a positive diffuser. The source of the information is usually insignificant.
Comstock uses a “Krispy Kreme doughnuts” example to explain the “precautionary approach “(756). Eighteen doughnuts are placed on a table in a room. There would be no reason for someone to go grab one and eat it. Now Comstock tells us to imagine a naked, crazy man runs into the room, points to a specific doughnut, and exclaims, “This doughnut will cause cancer. Avoid it at all costs, or die!” Because of this incident, people would rationally choose other doughnuts over that one because they have the option. It does not matter whether this man is telling the truth about that one doughnut or not because most people do not want to take the risk.
Comstock uses this example in explaining the “precautionary approach” because it shows how “powerful” food tainting is towards “determining consumer behavior” (756). It shows that “a single person with a negative view about GM foods will be much more influential than many people with a positive view” (756). Unfortunately this approach to GM foods is used so strongly that it allows us to turn a blind eye to the fact that maybe “potential harms [to society] may be minimal and outweighed by the benefits” (753). Another experiment was done where a product was given to three groups of people. One group got negative information about the product and rejected it. Another group got positive information and accepted it. The last group got both positive and negative information and rejected it, not caring if the negative information came from a credible source (756-757).
Many people that oppose GM foods “make unsupported claims, that GM foods will ruin the world”, while those in favor “make unsupported claims that GM foods will feed the world”, because a potential benefit of continuing the production of genetically modified food is that it can help solve the problem of world hunger (758). Comstock poses this question: “Are we being force to choose between two fundamental values, the value of free speech versus the value of children’s lives (758)?” He feels there should be “open conversation” about this topic because everyone should be allowed to include their opinions (758). The limit to their opinions, Comstock believes, is that there should be some scientific background to their statements because there would be chaos if people just stated their opinions based on emotions and because they are allowed free speech.
When it comes to GM technology, Comstock changed his opinion based on “three considerations”:
“(i) the right of people in various countries to choose to adopt GM tech. (human rights principle),
(ii) the balance of likely benefits over harms to consumers and the environment from GM tech. (utilitarianism)
(iii) the wisdom of encouraging discovery, innovations, and careful regulation of GM tech. (759)”
He now accepts the ideas of producing genetically modified foods because there are many biased reasons that this technology is opposed. While it is very important to recognize the possible harms that can arise from genetic technology, we can not turn away from the possible benefits, especially if they outweigh the harms. The “precautionary approach” is a reasonable way to reject dangerous theories. But it becomes irrational when this approach is used with unsupported claims. People must be open-minded about accepting information, specifically that which is supported by scientific data, because they could be rejecting ideas that may have great benefits to them and the environment.